The Greater the Arctic, the Greater the Need for Naval Presence

The Greater the Arctic, The Greater Need for Naval Presence

In a round-table discussion held at National Harbor, Md. on  April 9 at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space symposium, representatives from the US Navy, Coast Guard, and Interior Department discussed the ramifications of decreasing summer sea ice in the high latitudes.

 “The Arctic Ocean is a maritime region that has been largely inaccessible in the past,” said Rear Adm. Jon White, director of the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change and a member of the panel discussion. “The changing climate in the Arctic is prompting the sea services to evaluate their readiness for operations in the high north.”

Ice-free waters during the Arctic summer are opening the region to greater human activity including cargo shipping, oil and gas exploration, coastal mining transportation, commercial fishing, and adventure tourism, according to panel member Rear Adm. Cari Thomas, director of response policy for the U.S. Coast Guard.

White remarked that maritime crossroads around the globe represent critical national security priorities. As the Arctic increases in economic importance, its crossroads will also increase in strategic importance, and there will be a greater requirement for a naval presence.

 “Nobody wants to militarize the Arctic or make it a military-controlled region,” White explained. “We believe the presence of the U.S. Navy, and all well-meaning navies, acts as a force for security, which leads to stability and prosperity.”

Dr. John Oliver, senior policy advisor for the Coast Guard, pointed out that the exisiting governance regime for the Arctic Ocean is the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, and although the U.S. has yet to acceed to the Convention, it complies with all the articles. While there are some minor maritime boundary disputes between Arctic nations, these will likely be resolved peaceably, like the recent agreement between Norway and Russia that resolved their boundary dispute.

 “I think there will be very little chance of resource disputes in the Arctic,” Oliver said. “There are some legal issues, but they can all be resolved.”

White pointed out that as the other services are drawing down after a decade of war, the areas of responsibility for the Navy and Coast Guard are expanding, and the Arctic is competing against other priorities.

It’s also expensive to operate in that very remote and desolate environment, and there are serious challenges. An Arctic Environmental Assessment conducted by the Navy in 2011 lists such challenges as extreme seasonal cold, months of darkness, vast distances with no supporting shore infrastructure, lack of logistical support, limited communications and ice-compromised sensors and weapon systems.

White also serves as the Navy’s senior oceanographer, and he emphasized the inadequate environmental data available from the Arctic, the limited computer models and forecasting capabilities, and the lack of survey data of the ocean bottom needed to create accurate navigation charts.

The panelists were unified in the opinion that addressing the numerous challenges of Arctic operations requires a cooperative approach between federal agencies, as well as with the governments and militaries of other Arctic nations.

“We are truly working with our partners to make sure we’re not redundant or duplicative in terms of capabilities and development, in terms of strategies and planning, and how we take care of our global responsibilities,” White remarked.

For the Navy there is no immediate need to conduct sustained surface operations in the Arctic, but White believes that will change within the next ten years.

“We’re going to be operating in the Arctic with a presence that makes sense, and we are preparing for that now,” he said.

White said the Navy is in a transition stage, shifting from studies and assessments of capability gaps and readiness, to moving forward with investment strategies. “We’re going to start investing in the capabilities, the capacity, the people, and the training we need to operate up there safely,” he said.

 “We have the time and the opportunity to do this right,” White concluded.

The Sea-Air-Space symposium is the largest maritime exposition in the U.S. It is a forum uniquely positioned to allow interaction and information exchange between the sea services, which include the Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Merchant Marines. It also serves as an exposition of the latest naval and marine technology advances.

Naval Today Staff, April 11, 2013; Image: US Navy